Stan Lee on The Big Bang Theory is one of those things that seems inevitable when you come right down to it. Sheldon ending up in jail is also one of those things that seems inevitable when you come right down to it. Nearly every sitcom in existence has done an episode or a spin on an episode where one of the main characters ends up in jail, and if you're looking to throw someone on The Big Bang Theory in jail, well, Sheldon's pretty much your only go-to. Leonard would probably just hole up in a corner, and Penny would probably acquit herself fairly well. But Sheldon? Sheldon's going to end up not quite grasping the purpose of jail and demanding to be treated better than he is and the like. So both plotlines, while the sorts of things you'd predict the show would do eventually, have the potential for extreme hilarity.
Did we get extreme hilarity in "The Excelsior Acquisition"? Yes and no. There's some very funny stuff here, mostly having to do with some running gags that get funnier as they go along, but there's also a sense that none of this is pushing as far as it could. Either of these plots could have carried a whole episode all on their own, and while I applaud the show for getting ambitious enough to blend them together (in a way that largely makes sense, no less), I'm uncertain that they work well enough together to make either of them as funny as they could have been.
Take, as a case in point, Sheldon ending up in jail. For one thing, he ends up there because of Penny (though indirectly). For another thing, while he's wasting precious seconds in there, he's unable to be meeting Stan Lee at the comic book shop. Both of these things seem like they'd make for a series of great scenes with Sheldon trapped in a cell, hanging onto the bars or what have you, moaning his head off about how he needs to be let out. Instead, we get just one scene of the guy demanding to be treated better (the easiest possible direction to go with in this story), and the whole storyline is over - with very little explanation - as soon as it's started.
Actually, come to think of it, this episode blends together three of the most common plot devices for sitcoms. You have the honored guest star who's arrival sets the characters in a tizzy. You have a main character ending up in jail. And you have a main character having to defend himself in court, usually by calling one of the other characters to the witness stand in some sort of hilarious fashion. No one's going to claim that The Big Bang Theory is ultra-original, and, indeed, some of what makes it so much fun is the way that it uses these hoary old plot devices in some new ways. But every one of these storylines feels as old as I Love Lucy, and even though Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco are always fun together (and definitely fun as they prepare for their court appearance), the whole thing just feels like it could have used a little tightening or something where the various plots were split into different episodes.
It's rare to accuse The Big Bang Theory - which is loosely plotted on its best days - of burning off too much story, but I think that's what keeps this episode from working as well as it could. Instead of feeling like it's telling a story, "The Excelsior Acquisition" feels like it's binding together a bunch of comic sketches that are loosely related. Now, this series has always had a bit of this feeling. Its central plot device is the idea that if you turn a bunch of nerds - including one especially socially awkward one - loose in a variety of everyday situations, they will almost always wreak havoc. That's what's made the show such a success, and the fact that it has a genuine affection for the nerds has been what's kept it from completely turning into a show that mocks its characters and treats them as inferior.
But that loose collection of sketches approach relies almost entirely on its sketches having central gimmicks worthy of their existence. Something like Sheldon classically conditioning Penny worked in that sense, but Sheldon going to jail was a gimmick that needed more to it. There's a whole story arc here that mostly gets shoved aside in favor of the most predictable jokes. Now, don't get me wrong. The jokes here were still pretty funny because the show is fairly well-written and Jim Parsons is a pro and the writers and actor understand the Sheldon character so well that they can get mileage out of him doing pretty much anything. But both it and the court scene felt strangely undercooked, like the series decided the idea of those scenes was enough. Better was a scene like Sheldon and Penny preparing for court. It's just a sketch, sure, but it has a beginning, middle and end and a rise and fall to its action that makes the scene extra amusing.
Stan Lee's appearance, sadly, ends up being far more perfunctory. There's some business about the guys going to see him (mostly consisting of an irritating running gag where Raj lists all of the characters Lee has created with first and last names starting with the same letter), and there's some good stuff with Stuart trying to weasel another date out of Penny in exchange for giving her Lee's address. (In general, Stuart is my favorite recurring character.) But the big climax here - Sheldon finally meeting Lee and going inside to watch the Lakers with him - is both funny and kind of a letdown. I don't know that I was expecting more from the Stan Lee storyline, but I must have been, since it just being the guys saying, "Stan Lee is coming!" for five minutes followed by Sheldon getting served with a restraining order didn't really work for me.
"The Excelsior Acquisition" isn't the worst episode of this show, nor is it even all that terrible. But it is an episode that seems to point toward my theory that the writers on the show are often content to come up with funny scenarios and assume their actors will make them even funnier. Since this usually works, I suppose I shouldn't complain, but it's worth it to imagine just how good this show could be if the writers expended the same level of effort on making the show funny that the cast did. Hell, it could be an all-time great.
- "There's nothing more awesome and frightening than a man who's got music blasting from between his nipples."
- "Nothing worse than a paper cut!" "Obviously, you don't remember your circumcision."
- "I don't trust banks. I believe that when the robots rise up, the ATMs will lead the charge."
- "But it is a fact that it is a privilege to know you. Totally."
- "I was forced to issue an undeserved apology simply because I refused to urinate in a stainless steel bowl in front of criminals."
- "Not even my cat. I just feed it. Some nights, it doesn't even show up."
- "Well, I'm not much of a sports fan, but thank you."
- "This is gonna look great hanging next to my restraining order from Leonard Nimoy."